Modi’s reputation for governance miracles is built on shaky ground

Not all that he seems. Modi supporters in Vadodara, India. Divyakant Solanki/EPA

It seems highly likely that Narendra Modi will be the next elected prime minister of India. One reason for that has been a well-orchestrated campaign to represent Modi as some kind of legislative miracle worker. Will it trouble the electorate that the evidence just doesn’t stack up?

Modi is portrayed as the unchallenged leader of a big-business-friendly state which has been successfully rebranded as “Vibrant Gujarat” by his American PR firm Apco (the firm that also represents brutal dictators such as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev). The most expensive advertisement campaign in the history of India is augmented by fulsome praise from India’s leading industrial dynasties – Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Mittals and Adanis among them. “A leader with a grand vision” and “a king among kings”, are the kind of phrases used by these adoring tycoons.

The media outlets they control make him out to be responsible for the high level of overall growth as well as a non-corrupt, non-bureaucratic and efficient administration delivering better education, health and wealth for Gujarat which he has ruled as chief minister since 2001. Gujarat under Modi has done better than any other state in India is the refrain.

Crunching the Gujarat numbers

Let us look for evidence for these claims. Based on the World Development Indicators and the Census of India, Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have provided comprehensive statistical evidence about development in India in their recent book An Uncertain Glory – India and its Contradictions. They compare India with seven other South East Asian countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand) and also 21 Indian states with each other. What can we glean about Gujarat from their comprehensive data on a number of socio-economic indicators?

On some key welfare indicators, where India is near the bottom of world league tables, Gujarat is not even the best in India and sometimes below the all-India level.

All bark no bite? A street dentist in Gujarat. Chetan Karkhanis, CC BY-NC

For example, at 918 females per 1000 males in 2011, the gender imbalance was worse in Gujarat than the all-India average of 937 (and also worse than China’s average of 926). Only four out of 21 Indian states perform worse than Gujarat in this regard. The reality on the ground was even worse as there were only 886 girls per 1000 boys under the age of six.

In 2005-06, after five years of Modi’s rule, Gujarat’s performance was also below the national average (NA) in:

  • Percentage of undernourished children below age five (Gujarat 44.6; NA 42.5)
  • Percentage of households without toilet facilities (Gujarat 56.5; NA 51.7)
  • Percentage of women aged 15-49 with severe anaemia (Gujarat 19.3; NA 16.8)

Strangely enough, when asked about the high rate of anaemia among women, Modi blamed body-image issues among girls.

On some other key indicators where India’s rank among the eight countries is near the bottom, Gujarat is doing better than the national average, but there are between seven and ten states doing better than Gujarat:

  • Female literacy rate, Gujarat 9 out of 21
  • Infant mortality per 1000 live births, Gujarat 11 out of 21
  • Multi-dimensional poverty, Gujarat 8 out of 21

Fair to say then that not everything is better under Modi. And where Gujarat does excel, it is equally fair to say that it is not thanks to the efforts of the prime minsterial hopeful.

Growth, Industry

The figure cited most often by promoters of Modi is the average growth rate of GDP from 2001-11. At 8.2% it is the highest among all 21 states of India. How much of this is due to Modi?

Cut from a different cloth. Textiles in India. Ellie Van Houtte, CC BY-NC

The story of phenomenal industrial growth of Gujarat pre-dates Modi’s rule. Since the 19th century, Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat, has led the way in large-scale cotton textile production. Surat, the second-largest city in the state, is known as the diamond hub of the world, and is also the textile hub of India, producing synthetic fibres and silk that have earned it the sobriquet of “Silk City”. With more than 500,000 power looms preparing grey fabrics and 450 dyeing and printing machines engaged in processing synthetic fabrics, Surat accounts for 40% of India’s fabrics exports.

Ancillary industries have sprung up to service the growth of industries in Ahmedabad and Surat. The “Golden Corridor”, a 400-kilometre-long strip that stretches from Vapi to Mehasana near Ahmedabad, has also seen the growth of more than 50 industrial estates. Most house a thousand small- and medium-scale factories manufacturing petrochemicals, pesticides, dyes, paints, fertilisers, chemicals and industrial goods.

So what is Modi’s contribution? Maitreesh Ghatak, professor of economics at the LSE and Sanchari Roy, a research associate at the Department of Economics, at Warwick University have produced a brilliant analysis to answer this question.

Their methodology in their own words is:

In order to claim that his leadership had a significant impact on Gujarat’s economic performance, it is not enough to show that the state did better than the rest of India after he came to power in 2001. We have to demonstrate that the gap between Gujarat’s performance and that of the rest of India actually increased under his rule. This is a statistical method called “differences in differences”. It is routinely used to evaluate the performance of organisations under a particular management or the effectiveness of a particular government policy.

They looked at level of per capita income, its growth rate, Human Development Index that puts weight not only on income but also on non-income measures like education and health, inequality and the percentage of population below the poverty line for the major Indian states.

The reckoning

So did the state of Gujarat that has for a long time been one of the most developed states in terms of per capita income, and was already improving at a rate higher than the rest of the country, accelerate further, and significantly increase its growth margin under Modi’s stewardship?

Their answer is:

This did not happen. Both Maharashtra and Gujarat improved upon an already impressive growth trajectory in the 2000s, but the margin of improvement was too small to be statistically meaningful. So while Gujarat’s overall record is undoubtedly very good all through the last three decades, its performance in the 2000s does not seem to justify the wild euphoria and exuberant optimism about Modi’s economic leadership.

Not a role model in any sense then. But hold on a minute. Gujarat under Modi does excel in some murkier aspects, such as ignoring environmental destruction by mega industrial projects, attacks on minorities and a record number of police senior officers in jail.

But that is a different story taken up elsewhere and one which might take on an entirely national aspect once India’s voters have delivered their verdict.